Landscape into Art
Le Paysage français au XIX siècle, 1824-1874: L’École de la nature
In a famous outburst Michelangelo is supposed to have told the Portuguese painter Francisco de Holanda that “they paint in Flanders only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.” Such pictures, concluded Michelangelo, were only suitable for “young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony.”
The idea that landscape painting was too easy—both to produce and to enjoy—for long counted against it in elevated circles, and a vast amount of effort has been expended by artists themselves, by theorists, and by historians to prove the opposite. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers emphasized the role that could be played by a judicious choice of landscape in heightening the moral lessons imparted by the more serious narrative elements of the picture; Ruskin exalted the absolute value of truth as an end in itself; Ernst Gombrich has demonstrated the part that we, the beholders, are required to play if we are to interpret what the painter is apparently recording for us; Kenneth Clark has emphasized the extreme subtlety with which the balance between naturalism and tradition has to be maintained if the landscape is not to fall into the banal or the sterile. No one can believe any longer that those delightful little figures whom we can see in so many canvases of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nonchalantly sitting on some rocky ledge to sketch a waterfall or a precipice had only the problems of the weather to contend with as they set about trying to record faithfully what was before their eyes.
That the issues were very much more complicated than Michelangelo claimed has of course long been recognized by anyone who has paid any attention to them, but in recent years it has been Ernst Gombrich, more than anyone else, who has set out to provide a coherent theoretical scheme for the rise and practice of landscape painting.
The old textbook ideas were simple enough. As man acquired more and more skill in overcoming the dangers posed by his natural surroundings, so he became more and more conscious of the beauty of the world and more and more determined to reproduce it. With increasing virtuosity he introduced landscapes at first into the backgrounds of the devotional or narrative pictures he was required to paint until gradually the ostensible subject of his panel or canvas was to all intents and purposes swamped by what had originally been thought of as only a decorative accessory. And once landscape painting achieved a certain autonomy, artists became increasingly anxious to throw away the dead weight of traditional …